|Skeleton of an Aurochs|
Aurochs were massive animals, with large bulls standing 1.8m or more at the shoulder and possibly reaching 1 tonne in weight. Accounts of the last surviving pure Aurochs from 16th century Poland describe an animal that was more placid than one might expect, but could be agile, fast, and very dangerous if annoyed. They seem to have preferred wetland habitats, probably because of the lusher grazing their large bodies required, and in fact one old name translates as ‘marsh walker’.
Although Aurochs were hunted by Mesolithic peoples, the numbers taken would not have threatened the species survival in the UK, as people were thin on the ground – estimates for the total worldwide population of humanity range from 5 to 20 million across the whole planet, so the number in the British isles were probably no more than 10,000 at any one time, probably much less. In any event, Red and Roe Deer were probably more favoured prey as they were easier (and safer) to catch.
|Bull on left, cow on right|
There the story would have rested, until in the early 20th century a pair of German zoo directors called Heinz and Lutz heck conceived a plan to resurrect the Aurochs. From descriptions of the last survivors, they attempted to use selective breeding from various primitive breeds to create a Mark II Aurochs that combined these traits, which they believed derived from interbreeding between domestic cattle and Aurochs before the Aurochs died out. They did in fact succeed in producing an animal which at least looked a bit like an Aurochs, and the breed survives to this day. There is however a sting in this tale. The Heck brothers were enthusiastic Nazis, and Lutz took part in the demolition of Warsaw Zoo (many animals were stolen and taken back to Germany). In addition, it is pretty generally agreed that the results of their efforts are different in many respects from the true Aurochs (they are smaller and much more heavily built for one thing), so although Heck cattle are sometimes used as grazing animals in habitat restoration projects, they are basically a rather embarrassing historical relic.
|Some of the Chillingham herd|
The case of the Chillingham cattle is a good example of the issues that can arise with what is now called ‘rewilding’ – the restoration of habitats by reintroducing various large mammals, both herbivores and carnivores. Is it actually necessary to recreate a look-alike of an extinct wild relative of a domestic animal, when its domesticated descendants will have exactly the same ecological affect? Does re-wilding have anything to do with actual conservation, or is it rather an aesthetic choice by urban man? Also, if this re-wilded landscape is a human creation, is it actually wild?
So what do you think?
Next week, I will be at the Bath and West Show – see you there!
(images from wikipedia)